I rarely get more pleasure out of anything I find in bookstores than I do from a great collection of short stories. I’m even more in love with the medium than I am with novels, which is an understanding I’ve come to (admitted to myself, really) recently. I love Chekhov and Poe and Sherwood Anderson as much as any appreciator of a craft, but the story collections I come back to inevitably have to do with modern Americans, with people in places that I can relate to. Thus, John Updike, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Mary Gaitskill, George Saunders, DFW, in one way or another these folks’ stories tell me more about people in the world I know than any others works of art. So discovering a new American writer whose short stories entrance me is always a big event. In 2014, it was Bob Shacochis’ Easy in the Islands, 10 stories of greed, lust and solitude in and around the Caribbean, that I had the most fun with. Not surprising for stories written by an American (mostly) about island nations, most of the protagonists are expats – fishermen, hoteliers, artifact collectors, con men – and not a one of them feels at home in the muggy, corrupt culture that surrounds him (or her). The best of the bunch is “Hot Day on the Gold Coast”, an unrelentingly propulsive and funny first-person narrative about a rich Palm Beach jogger whose knack for choosing the worst route winds him up in every kind of trouble one can imagine happening in a beach community. Shacochis is an award-winning novelist and reporter, but this book, his first, won him the National Book Award; his acrobatic prose and unnerving perspectives leave no doubt about the medium he should be working in. – Alex Peterson
In the realm of speculative fiction, parallel worlds have been done to death. Robert Heinlein may have laid down the last word with The Number of the Beast (1980), but that hasn’t stopped the “what if the Nazis had won” train. However, this year I discovered The Long Earth, a joint novel by the British authors Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Although it’s a simple premise (as multiverse tales go), the places two such different authors manage to take it are nothing short of astonishing.
In the universe of The Long Earth, parallel worlds exist just “sideways” to our own, accessible by means of a simple mechanical device. After plans for “Steppers” appear online, millions of humans flood into the nearly identical Earths that exist alongside ours but with each successive world, the similarity slowly fades and new, alien things begin to appear. There appears to be only one thing that remains constant on the millions of other Earths: ours is the only one that has developed Homo Sapiens.
Much of the charm of The Long Earth comes from the mixed styles of Pratchett and Baxter. The former is largely known for his wry humor and work with fantasy tropes, while the latter is a pre-eminent hard science fiction author. Though these would seem like oil and water, their collaborative work ends up more like oil and vinegar; their voices are absolutely complementary, mixing plausible explanations for unearthly phenomena with both seriousness and humor. Since its publication in 2012, The Long Earth has now been projected as a five part series, and we’re all the better for it. – Nathan Kamal
Self-published in five increasingly compelling installments and eventually optioned by Ridley Scott, Hugh Howey’s sci-fi saga deserves a spot on the bestseller lists even without the allure of an Internet-age success story. Beginning with the potent dystopian vision of its namesake first book, Wool, the Omnibus Edition continues to flesh out the world of Howey’s Silo – a vast underground dwelling inhabited by people who can never enter the toxic wasteland above and are forbidden from expressing the wish to do so. Howey’s storytelling prowess makes for a quick read, but it’s the attention and care put into the world of the silo that makes Wool so engrossing. There’s an oddly askew language and rhythm to life within the self-sustaining subterranean tower: capital punishment is a “cleaning” that forces those dreaming of the outside world to explore it; social stratification is represented by whole floors of similar laborers stacked together in their designated band of the silo; human couriers run thousands of steps in a structure without elevators (where people don’t seem to even know what they’re missing); paper is a scarce and valuable commodity treated with reverence. Most of Wool may be spent waiting for that genre-crucial moment where we discover if this community has any connection to our present, but the intriguing cultural gaze that defines this artificial world is even more rewarding. – Michael Merline
Many of Haruki Murakami’s books, like 1Q84 or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, place his inscrutable characters into surreal worlds or fantastic situations. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage takes the opposite tack with a setting that is fairly mundane. The central character, Tsukuru Tazaki, has lost his place because his four dearest friends have inexplicably ejected him from their group. On the surface, he accepts his fate relatively stoically, but this burden resonates through his life, explaining why he can’t engage in long term relationships or romances.
Murakami is adept at outlining his characters with deft calligraphic strokes and Tsukuru is no exception. His depression is understandable, but he cloaks himself in a passivity that becomes a kind of anti-egotism. He creates a self-imposed mythology that contrasts his bland normality against his friends’ more notable characters. By the time he meets his latest lover, this loss has become a hidden hollow spot within him, but she teases out this story and then pushes him to confront the past.
Effectively, the book offers a psychological take on the classic idea of the hero’s journey, but Murakami’s terse economy and oblique side stories give the book an exotic taste. The character development and ambiguity in the story create a shifting world of possibilities. Like placing stones on a Go board, patterns gradually emerge and create a momentum of change. Along the way, simple motives and clear positions become tangled. Passive Tsukuru takes action and the book approaches resolution, but he still seems a bit inscrutable. Murakami doesn’t bend reality quite as much as he sometimes does, but longtime fans will recognize his inimitable style. – Jester Jay Goldman
Gravity’s Rainbow should have been my most revelatory new read of 2013. But as I started into Pynchon’s mammoth, absurdist WWII novel, the sheer onslaught of detail from the first page bogged me down, and various other life obligations meant I stalled out around 100 pages. This year, I tried again, and a few months later, I felt remorse when I finally turned the last page. Pynchon’s magnum opus contains too many characters to remember (despite their delightfully ridiculous names), massive diversions into demented headspaces, and, above all, an obsessive focus on the sexual and scatological.
Yet as funny, and hard to follow, as everything is, it’s also a remarkable expression of pain. Contrary to some of his peers, Pynchon did not appropriate a past conflict to attack a current one; rather, he sees WWII for its own horror, the birth of the modern anxiety in the form of the rocket, a device whose mathematical precision yet abject chaos suggests that its use as a weapon could signal the end for the Earth more than the possibility of using the technology to leave the planet behind. To that end, its fixation on sex and kink is, for all its black humor, its most human element, a desperate attempt to connect to some primal, fundamental sense of self in the wake of the event that firmly proved how small and disposable people are. Pynchon is the most self-effacing of the Serious Male Authors of the 20th Century, and as such his insights attain the genuine, searching profundity that his peers often insist upon. – Jake Cole
While Faber has written few novels, each (as with his short stories and novellas) enlivens a genre. What Under the Skin did for estrangement within everyday settings, and The Crimson Petal and the White for the Victorian triple-decker, so this new novel does for an encounter with alien life.
On the planet his corporate employer has christened, Peter Leigh confronts enigmatic colleagues, all chosen for “no drama.” Within this eerie setting, Peter struggles to learn why the corporation has sent him to Oasis, and why some of its inhabitants wish to so fervently adopt the Christian message. Cut off from his wife, an increasingly fraught Bea, and an Earth undergoing economic collapse and climate-change driven disaster, he strives to rise to his new calling as a chaplain.
Adjusting to the indigenous diet and trying to talk like an Oasan, he begins to drift away from the mentality of an earthling. Isolated from his colleagues, his brain starts to scatter, as “it sifted intimacies and perceptions, allowed them to trickle through the sieve of memory, until only a token few remained, perhaps not even the most significant ones”. In turn, he immerses himself into his task, to translate some of the Bible, and to go native as much as possible.
Faber approaches this mission from a Christian chaplain’s perspective, but the results refuse to be predictable. Those of any faith or none may find that Faber’s calmly conveyed, yet unsettling, narrative challenges their own expectations of belief, and of who is controlling whom, in this reflection on conviction. – John L. Murphy
“Somebody’s chicken!” This is just one of the hilarious lines in Greg Sestero’s memoir on the making of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. But like the movie whose troubled production it documents, The Disaster Artist has an unlikely depth. Sestero was a struggling actor when he latched on to the project that has been called the Worst Movie Ever Made, and although The Room is fully established as a midnight cash cow, Sestero’s acting career never really recovered, his creative legacy forever tied to a high-profile failure. Co-written with journalist Tom Bissell, who wrote one of the more insightful articles on The Room, Sestero’s book is not your typical entertainment memoir. This unlikely tale of bromance and finding your voice is a sobering tale of creative frustration, from an actor who can’t find the right part to a would-be director who struggles to communicate his ideas. The Disaster Artist can be funny and terrifying at the same time, when you learn that Wiseau’s bookshelf includes the volume, Shower Power: Wet, Warm and Wonderful Exercises for the Shower and Bath. – Pat Padua
Truman Capote may have the corner on the class “true crime” novel, but Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness is a chilling master class in reporting that takes the reader to the dark recesses of Japan. Parry, The Times of London’s Tokyo bureau chief, tells a terrifying story while turning a critical eye on living in Japan as a foreigner. It’s a book 10 years in the making, one that is electrifying, chilling and haunting.
A young British woman named Lucie Blackman comes to Tokyo to make some money and ends up working in a hostess bar. While not a prostitute, a hostess is a woman that joins businessmen at their tables, pours them drinks and listens to them talk. They also are encouraged to go out on chaste dates with their clients. She vanished without a trace, the only clue a frightening phone call to a friend from an unknown man claiming that she had joined a cult. Her body wouldn’t be found for months.
People Who Eat Darkness oozes with a sense of dread. When the truth of poor Lucie’s fate is revealed, it is so much worse than we could have expected. She went to Japan and darkness swallowed her up. Parry forces us to look into that blackness and find Lucie, even if it’s the last place we want to look. – David Harris
Sex at Dawn is a wonderful account of human sexuality borne from the efforts of Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. From homosexuality to polygamy, we’ve arrived at this place where modern relationships and human sexuality is fairly jumbled and confused. Why is that?
The book explores our great-ape cousins and studies how they act, what sexual habits they have developed, and compare us to them. I love books that I learn from and can use to bolster conversation. This is one of those books: loaded with facts, studies, etc. They break down other research and all those biases before hitting you with a play by play as to what those other studies’ faults are, what they’ve overlooked and why how you feel about sex deep down is really OK. It is an eye-opening and incredibly addictive read.
Ever wonder why women tend to be vocal in bed? Ever wonder why the penis is flared? Ever wonder why men seem to always want more but lose it in monogamy? Ever wonder why monogamy is so incredibly difficult? The authors of this book have well thought out and researched reasons as to why all of these things happen. They hit you in the genitals as to why all these things that you feel are not only reasonable, but rational.
The only problem I have with this is sometimes you’re armed with knowledge and then you’re like “Now what?” There are very few of us that are going to jettison our relationships, monogamous or not. But it does bring up, at best, the ability for us to talk about concepts, alternatives, and to bring a lot of assumptions to the table. Enjoy the conversations this book will bring you and your partner(s). – Cedric Justice
Once a year, if I’m lucky, I read a book that changes the way I approach the page. These rare books make me want to write better, fresher, and more powerfully. I want everyone I know to read and fall in love with them (and remember that I was the one who introduced them to it, of course). This year that book was Pity the Animal by Chelsea Hodson. A tiny tome, essentially an extended essay chapbook, Hodson’s breathtaking lyric style braids art and experience to tell a story about submission, relationships and the body. Her ability to weave dissociative subjects like dating websites, art installations and animal behavior science are nimble and astounding. The fragments mod-podge a mosaic of sexual coming-of-age and discovery to unpack the question, “how much can the body endure?” It’s refreshing to see nonfiction this creative. While many memoirs spend three or four hundred pages unpacking such a reckoning in the writer’s life, Hodson creates a dazzling take on the growing-up/self-discovery trope that uses a fraction of the word count, but has lingered much longer than I normally can retain the titles of such other works. Pity the Animal is an outstanding example of how far memoir and essay writing can stretch and recoil. – Tabitha Blankenbiller
Wildly controversial at the time of its release, The Tin Drum has proven to be one of the most important books of the 20th century, with a big fat shelf of awards to prove it. This 1959 novel not only helped Günter Grass eventually win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but the 1979 film adaptation shared the Palm d’Or with Apocalypse Now and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. I was captivated by the bizarre and often disturbing film when I first saw it in college over 10 years ago, but I hadn’t until this year managed to pick up and actually read this classic book, one that The Guardian went so far as to call “the defining novel of the 20th century.”
The Tin Drum is narrated from an insane asylum by an adult Oskar, a dwarf who was born with adult cognition and made the conscious decision, at the age of three, to stop growing in order to prevent himself from ever fully entering the adult world. Armed with his titular instrument and a scream capable of shattering glass, Oskar recounts his origins and coming-of-age through World War II. His mother’s husband is a Nazi and his suspected biological father (his mother’s cousin) is eventually killed by the Nazis. Oskar lives, loves (often in taboo ways) and plays his beloved drum. Throughout the three decades that span in this magic realism-tinged, highly iconoclastic book, he compares himself to Jesus, witnesses his mother descend into madness after seeing eels pour out of a dead horse’s head, ruins Nazi pep rallies, becomes the leader of a gang, achieves fame and fortune as a jazz musician, and frames himself for murder. Not bad for a guy with the body of three-year-old. – Josh Goller
It was far too easy for me to fall down the rabbit hole of little-known 1930s European literature. While it all started with Italo Calvino and If on a winter’s night a traveler…, I’ve now made it through all of his immediately accessible books. And the same goes for Austro-Hungarian authors Dezső Kosztolányi and Stefan Zweig. So this year I moved on to Antal Szerb, best known for Journey by Moonlight. But its predecessor and Szerb’s first novel, The Pendragon Legend is a darker tale blending gothic thriller, murder mystery and elements of romantic comedy. Despite the novel’s title, Arthurian legends play no role. The central character, Janos Batky (a Doctor of Philosophy, specializing in useless information), serves as Szerb’s alter ego and creates much of the novel’s humorous moments simply by virtue of being a Hungarian in Wales, a stranger in a strange land. The influence of authors like Evelyn Waugh and even P.G. Wodehouse is unmistakable, while the inherent mysticism in Szerb’s fantastical mystery recalls the likes of Poe.
The Budapest scholar is innocently enough invited by the Earl of Gwynedd to his castle in Wales to study rare works in his library. Intrigue and plots of inheritance, however, threaten to derail his scholarly endeavors. It is a Sherlockian mystery at its core with old flames resurfacing to carry out elaborate revenge plots and shadowy horsemen galloping across the moors being everyday occurrences. But despite its heady pace, Szerb maintains a tongue-in-cheek tone throughout that undermines any real suspense in the story but invites readers to join in the raucous adventure nonetheless. – Katherine Springer